The loss of civic virtue and its consequences

Think Again: Living surrounded by enemies has a way of introducing a certain reality factor to life that no amount of imported Western hedonism can completely erase.

Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson notes that one of the striking features of the history of past civilizations is “the speed with which most of them collapsed, regardless of cause.” The fall of the Roman Empire took only a few decades. No one foresaw the implosion of the Soviet Union. Today, it is hard to envision how the 17-nation euro-zone, born in such fanfare, can muddle through in its current form.
Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, writes, “I don’t know of any great power in history that lost its foothold or decayed because of external reasons; internal social dysfunction was to blame.” Certainly that was Gibbon’s diagnosis of the fall of the Roman Empire.
I understand Garfinkle to mean that human capital is crucial. The term usually refers to the educational attainments of the population. But it means more than that.
Less quantifiable – but no less crucial – is the moral character of a people. Russia, for instance, cannot hope to remain a world power with alcoholism rates that have left the average 15-year-old Russian male with a lower life expectancy than his Cambodian counterpart.
Riots in France and England in recent years have revealed the growth of a large underclass nearly devoid of any traditional virtues. There is nothing in the lives of the members of this underclass, and particularly those of the young, to give them any dignity. Each welfare payment is experienced as a wound, even as the recipients take those payments as their due for the humiliation thrust upon them by the state.
Theodore Dalrymple, who worked for more than a decade as a prison psychiatrist in England, is the leading chronicler of this underclass of people characterized by their incapability of accepting any responsibility for their lives; for whom life is something that just happens to them, and about which they can make no decisions.
He describes the “cities of darkness” that encircle Paris, housing “a population that derives the meaning of its life from the hatred it bears for the other ‘official’ society in France. This alienation... is written on the faces of the young men, most of them permanently unemployed, who hang out in the pocked and pot-holed open spaces between their dwellings. When you approach them to speak to them, their immobile faces betray not a flicker of recognition of your shared humanity...”
Six hundred thousand Britons have reached the age of 26 never having worked a day; 17 percent of British youth are neither in school nor working nor in training programs. They have never tasted a morsel of food or worn a garment paid for by money earned. But far from breeding gratitude, welfare has only left them with a sense of entitlement to more, as reflected in last summer’s riots.
These developments have hardly left the rest of society unscathed. Between 1959 and 2002, the French crime rate increased nearly sevenfold; from 1993 to 2000 cases of arson increased 25 times.
NOW COMES Charles Murray, in his new book Coming Apart, to warn that a similar permanent underclass is taking shape in the US. He attributes the process to the erosion of the “founding virtues” of the American republic: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion. Murray creates two fictional communities, Belmont and Fishtown – the former home to the top 20% of the population in income and education; the latter home to a “new lower class.” (Murray’s work, incidentally, is explicitly about class, not race; it is a study of “the state of white America.”) The sharpest contrasts are in the area of family. Over half the children born to women under 30 in America today are born to single mothers. The illegitimacy rate for black children is over 70%. In (white) Fishtown, illegitimacy rates are around 45%. Only about 30% of children in Fishtown live with both biological parents, as opposed to 90% in Belmont. Under half of those aged 30 to 49 in Fishtown are currently married, and 30% are divorced, as compared to 84% married in Belmont and 10% divorced.
Born to single mothers and raised in single-parent homes, many of Fishtown’s children begin life so far behind that nothing within the power of a non-totalitarian state, unwilling to claim each child born at birth, can possibly compensate for their ingrained disadvantages.
Decades of government Head Start programs have shown little impact. By four years of age it’s already too late.
As Walter Russell Mead puts it, “All the social workers in the world can’t [provide] a nine-year-old child who has never seen a healthy family... with the kind of psychological balance and strength children get from growing up in a loving and stable family.”
The results are just what one would expect.
Industriousness is also way down in Fishtown. The percentage of white male workers receiving disability insurance has quintupled since 1960, the percentage of those outside the labor force has tripled, and the percentage of those working less than full-time has doubled. Most of that leisure time is spent sleeping and watching television at best, and criminal mischief at worst. The percentage of Fishtown men in prison quadrupled from 1974 to the mid-90s, when crime rates began to drop, and remains significantly higher than in 1970.
A vicious cycle has set in for Fishtown’s young males: They are adjudged too irresponsible to be marriage material by Fishtown’s young women (though that does not prevent them from fathering children), which makes them less responsible, which, in turn, makes them less suitable marriage material.
In comparison to Fishtown, Belmont does very well on the four “founding virtues” – families are stable; illegitimacy rates low; religious affiliation has declined, but remains 50% higher than in Fishtown; and crime rates have remained the same. It is only in comparison to other countries that matters are not so rosy.
While Americans still work longer hours and more weeks per year than Europeans, South Koreans work 40% more hours per week than Americans, and their children attend school 22% more days per year. On American campuses, Ferguson attests, it is the Asian and Asian- American students who drive themselves.
IN HIS most recent in a series of powerful essays on the death of the blue societal model, Mead discusses the transformation from 19th-century America, in which people defined themselves by what they produced, to today’s America, in which young people develop their identities through consumption and leisure activities alone. Couch potato Homer Simpson as Nietzsche’s “Last Man.”
Young children on the family farm had important responsibilities from an early age, and those responsibilities increased rapidly as they grew older. Farm kids understood the connection between work and consumption.
They knew how much work went into the shoes they bought, and they planned the planting for the next year together with their parents.
By contrast, today’s youth spend their first quarter century as critics of a life they know very little about, unspoiled as they are by much serious exposure to the world of work. The provision in Obamacare allowing children to remain on their parents’ insurance until 26 symbolizes the indefinite prolongation of adolescence.
America’s young are not only consumers of things, but of one another. By severing the connection between intimacy and commitment, easily available contraceptives have set a pattern of far more shallow relationships between the sexes, and allowed young men to evade the responsibilities of married life indefinitely.
The decline of America’s human capital is, of course, not just one of moral degeneration in isolation of economic and social factors. Mechanized agriculture rendered family farms no longer viable. Development of America’s oil and gas resources is almost as important for the manly jobs it promises as for the revenues generated, and greater energy independence offered.
Increasing government regulation has made employers wary of hiring new workers, as happened in Western Europe, and thus reduced entry-level jobs where young men can learn the necessary habits of the workplace. Progressive regulation to make cities quieter and more aesthetic led to a flight of manufacturing jobs from inner cities, where they are most desperately needed.
Government intervention has exacerbated the loss of American virtue. The greater the number of Great Society programs and expansion of benefits, the more rapid the decline of poorer neighborhoods into dystopias. Thirty years ago, the blue social model of growing social insurance and welfare payments seemed to Mead superior to anything that could be imagined. Today, he rejoices at its literal bankruptcy because of the toll on the quality of the citizenry.
MY PESSIMISTIC reflections on the decline of my native land make me bullish on Israel. Living surrounded by enemies, with hundreds of thousands of missiles pointed at it, has a way of introducing a certain reality factor to life that no amount of imported Western hedonism can completely erase. Compulsory military service matures young Israelis in a manner that has no parallel in the rest of the developed world.
Israeli women (even the non-religious) have the highest birthrates in the Western world. They can still think beyond the framework of their own life span, and contemplate future generations without their presence.
When polled, most Israelis give more importance to their Jewish identity than their Israeli identity. Rather than reflecting a lack of patriotism, that suggests a deeper patriotism, for it means they still view their nation as part of a 3,000 world historical mission.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.